By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
As the book of VAYIKRA opens, the Torah describes the details
of various types of Korbanot, sacrifices. The first instance cited is the olah
(burnt-offering), which is the free-will offering of an individual.
And he shall rest his hand (V’SAMACH YADO) on the head of the burnt-offering,
and it shall be accepted for him, to atone for him (Vayikra 1:4).
The first step of the sacrificial order, performed while the animal is still
alive, is semichah, laying hands on the animal’s head. The verb S-M-CH,
however, means more than merely placing:
. . . and he comes home and leans his hand on the wall . . .
Semichah, therefore, is pressing, supporting, leaning. As the Talmud says (Chagigah
16b; Zevachim 33a), this act involves “one’s whole strength.” Rambam (Laws of
the Acts of the Sacrifices, 3:13) explains:
And the one leaning needs to press with all his strength with his two hands on
the head of the animal, as it says, “on the head of the burnt-offering” not on
the neck, nor on the sides [of the head]. Nor shall there be anything
interposing between his hands and the animal.
The particulars of this rite are derived from our verses. Although the text and
a few others that refer to semichah says his hand (YADO), in the singular, we
are taught (Menachot 93b) that it means both hands. As Ibn Ezra says, employing
a double entendre of S-M-CH:
when we found the “copyists” [Ibn Ezra’s term for the Sages of
the Talmud, who preserved and transmitted the Oral Torah] who “copied down” that
every “resting” (semichah) is with two hands, we relied (samachnu) upon them.
According to Ramban, quoting the Sifra and Menachot (loc. cit.), the Torah
emphasizes his hand: that is, the one bringing the sacrifice must press down
with his own hands, and he cannot deputize anyone else neither his wife, his
son, his slave, nor any other agent to do so on his behalf. In other words,
semichah is a mitzvah imposed on the body, which does not allow for proxy.
(Other commandments that fall into this category include tzitzit and tefillin.)
If a number of people purchase the sacrifice in partnership, then each one must
perform his own semichah, one after the other (Rambam, op. cit., 3:9).
The procedure for semichah is described in Yoma 36a and in the Rambam (3:14-15):
The animal stands on the north side of the altar, with its head facing west. The
one bringing the sacrifice stands to the east of the animal and faces west; that
is to say, he stands behind the animal’s head. He presses down, with his two
hands next to each other, between the horns, while confessing:
“I have sinned, transgressed and committed the following crime:
. . . I have repented before You, and this is my atonement.”
As Rambam suggests, even if the sacrifice is a shelamim (peace-offering), which
is not brought for sin, he says words of praise to Hashem. Others, including
Torah Temimah (R. Baruch ben Yechiel Michel HaLevi Epstein, 1860-1942), cite
Divrei HaYamim (II, 30:22):
for seven days they sacrificed peace-offerings and confessed to Hashem, the G-d
of their fathers,
which undoubtedly refers to praise.
Rambam (3:10) points out:
There is no semichah for communal sacrifices except for two leanings for the
goat that is sent away [on Yom Kippur, Vayikra 16:21-22] and on the bull of
error [brought when, due to an erroneous ruling by the Sanhedrin, the people
committed a sin which carries the punishment of karet, Vayikra 4:12]. And this
matter is a law via Moshe our teacher, that there are only two acts of semichah
for communal [sacrifices].
On the other hand, semichah is performed for all private sacrifices, except for
the first-born, the tithe and the Passover sacrifice. In his commentary to
Menachot 92b, Rashi explains the rationale: The purpose of semichah is in order
to obtain ritzui (Hashem’s favor); this is not only true of sacrifices brought
for a sin, or a contemplation of sin, but even for a shelamim, whose purpose is
to increase peace between the nation and Hashem. This, too, is a form of ritzui.
However, the first-born, tithe and Passover sacrifices are brought only in order
to fulfill an obligation, not for atonement.
In order to understand the symbolism of semichah, Hirsch (Rabbi Shimshon Raphael
Hirsch, 1808-1888) refers to other instances where the Torah speaks of “laying
on the hands”:
• At the initiation of the Leviiim (Bamidbar 8:10).
• At the initiation of Yehoshua (Bamidbar 27:18, 23; Devarim 34:9).
• At the execution of the blasphemer (Vayikra 24:14).
In these instances, semichah signifies an investment of powers and
By granting powers to representatives, the giver gains an increase of his powers
either in extent or time. . . . the “hand,” the obligation and the right and
power to do some act is transferred to another, and at the same time itself
gains support, assistance.
There is an interdependence between the two sides, both giving and gaining.
A similar notion, says Hirsch, exists when one performs semichah on a sacrifice:
the “hand” that had become morally weak . . . “supports” itself on the
resolution of future betterment . . . and . . . gives the offering its specific
relationship to the one who does the act.
We should not make the mistake of thinking that the individual who brings a
sacrifice transfers his persona wholly onto that sacrifice; if that were so,
then all that would be needed would be a gentle placing of the hands on the
animal’s head. Instead, the person supports himself upon the animal: The animal
becomes a sacrifice through his appointment, and, at the same time, he depends
upon the animal to hold him up. The sacrifice is thus not a substitute, but an
extension, of the individual. The sacrifice does not remove the person’s
responsibility it enlarges it.
Torah K'Torat Eretz Yisrael!"- Torah from Aloh Na'aleh*
Sefer Vayikra is saturated with Mitzvot ha-Teluyot ba'Aretz (commandments
dependent on Eretz Yisrael), from laws dealing with sacrifices, the
Temple, and the Kohanim, through those concerning the Land itself, such as
Shemittah and Yovel. Unfortunately, as pointed out in our Yom Tov liturgy,
"Because of our sins we have been exiled from our Land," the Temple has
been destroyed, and we cannot perform many of those Mitzvot today. In
fact, the Ramban (Devarim 11:18) states that a reason why any Mitzvot are
"practiced" in exile is "so that they will not seem novel when you return"
to Eretz Yisrael. This underscores the centrality of our Land to
fulfilling the commandments.
Our Sages tell us that "the All-Merciful One desires the heart." This
means that no matter whether we can afford - or are otherwise able - to do
more, or less, the important thing is that what we do, we intend for the
sake of heaven (Berachot 5b). This is seen clearly from the fact that a
Korban Olah (burnt-offering; Vayikra, Chapter 1) could be fulfilled
through bringing a bull, a goat, or a dove, depending on one's means.
As Purim approaches, we are reminded of the Jew's precariousness,
especially in the Diaspora. The antidote, the Megillah tells us (Esther
9:27), is that the Jews "re-accepted" the Torah in the days of
Achashverosh (Shabbat 88a). In other words, they rededicated themselves to
it. Whether in the Diaspora, or here in Eretz Yisrael, let us do the same
today. And in this merit may Hashem find us worthy of "bringing us up in
gladness to our land ... where we will offer the sacrifices" in the
rebuilt Holy Temple, and properly perform all the other Mitzvot, speedily
in our days!
Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Iskowitz, Jerusalem
*D’var Torah from Aloh Na'aleh:
an initiative of former North American Rabbis and laymen who successfully
made Aliyah, aimed at highlighting the centrality of Israel and promoting
Aliyah. They send emissaries – Rabbis, academicians, and others – on
speaking-tours throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Tel: 972-2-566-1181 ext. 320